In the aftermath of World War II, the greatest German statesman of the 20th century, Konrad Adenauer, responded to the wreckage of fascism and the threat of communism with simple words: “Europe must be created.” Adenauer envisioned an economically integrating community of reinforcing, free and self-governing republics across Europe. Unabashedly pro-American, Adenauer succeeded with the assistance of two great leaders, Harry S. Truman and George C. Marshall. Today, the Marshall Plan ranks as the most successful diplomatic initiative in American history.
Seven decades on, Adenauer’s vision has been obscured by an imperious Brussels bureaucracy and a Euro monetary zone that is paired with nineteen independent nation-states, each of which pursues its own fiscal policy. The vigor and dynamism that defined post-war Europe is fading—and with it, the strength to solve complex crises. Sensing weakness, the West’s enemies have driven millions of refugees into the heart of Europe in an attempt to break its politics.
While Adenauer’s era is long past, the need for U.S. leadership is not. Then, as now, Europe faces existential questions of identity, purpose, and organization. Just as President Truman prepared the ground for victory in the Cold war, its time for renewed U.S. leadership to strengthen the transatlantic alliance through bold, decisive engagement. The stakes are high: the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) remains our most important military partnership, while trade with Europe is well over $1 trillion annually.
Over the past quarter century, European elites have pursued integration as an article of faith. For these leaders, the project of European Union (EU) is about more than foreign policy or trade—it is an ongoing effort to check national identities in pursuit of Europe. As they see it, the British vote to exit the EU is an act of secession that must be cauterized before it spreads across the rest of Europe. This has led the continent to adopt a hardline against Great Britain in the run-up to the Brexit negotiations. In one typical comment, French President Francois Hollande has demanded that “there must be a price” for Great Britain to leave the EU—it should be no better off economically outside the bloc than it was as a member.
It is not in the United States’ interest for the United Kingdom (UK) to emerge from Brexit diminished, however. As the president-elect argued the day after the Brexit vote, “The UK has been such a great ally for so long—they’ll always be at the front of the line. They’ve been amazing allies, in good times and in bad times.” In keeping with this tradition, the Trump administration should aim to preserve Britain’s status as a major regional power with expeditionary capabilities.
At its best, the European Union can act as an institutional bulwark against revisionist powers. So long as Brexit looms, however, the continent will remain preoccupied with itself and vulnerable to outside meddling. In turn, this will lead to paralysis and division, rendering Europe an ineffective partner to the United States. To prevent such an outcome, the Trump administration should seek to break the deadlock between Great Britain and the continent as quickly as possible.
As an opening step, the president-elect could invite Great Britain into a free trade agreement (FTA). Such a move would not only anchor Great Britain in North America but also demonstrate the new president’s commitment to fair trade. A bipartisan coalition of lawmakers has already voiced their support for such a move. The president-elect could complement these steps with other smaller measures in support of Britain, including backing it as it deposits its schedule of tariffs at the WTO.
Such moves would not only strengthen the U.S.-UK special relationship but subtly encourage Europe to cut a deal with Great Britain, lest it lose market share across key sectors. However, in return for the continent offering financial services equivalency, Britain should be prepared to take conciliatory steps, such as promising work permits to tens of thousands of EU nationals. It is in the United States’ interest for both Britain and the continent to emerge economically strong and politically reinvigorated after Brexit. This would allow both sides to move forward without hurting trade volumes across the Channel. Just as importantly, it could spark a democratic renaissance across Europe.
Indeed, the United States needs Europe to function—to act as a force multiplier that lowers the costs of U.S. action abroad. To stymy such cooperation, however, Russia has sought to destabilize Europe, the East in particular, by utilizing points of leverage like energy. Moscow regularly exploits its status as a major energy supplier to blackmail those governments it wishes to dominate. To neutralize this threat, the Trump administration should consider strengthening Europe’s periphery against Russia. Specifically, the Trump administration may wish to support the Nordstream 2 stance of Poland and the Baltic States.
As proposed, Nordstream 2 is a gas pipeline running under the Baltic Sea from Russia to Germany that would further Russian dominance of Eastern European energy markets. If Berlin is able to reach a favorable Brexit agreement with the UK, it may be persuaded to set aside its Nordstream 2 ambitions. In return, Eastern Europe may be sufficiently satisfied to drop their objections to at least some British immigration controls, which impacts their citizens most of all. The result would be a major American victory that ties Eastern Europe more closely to the West.
Irrespective whether it pursues such a course, the Trump administration should permanently engage Europe as a means of building trust, especially as the distribution of European power shifts in the wake of Brexit. From Greek debt to Syrian refugees, Europe has faced its share of challenges over the past several years—a trend which shows no sign of abating. By building a well-spring of trust between the different regions of Europe, the Trump administration can make it easier for the continent to tackle future political and economic emergencies more smoothly.
Far too often, the concept of Europe has been appropriated by those who pit the republican ideals of self-government against European solidarity. In truth, European unity is only possible so long as each member state possesses the vitality and confidence in itself to coordinate with the others and assimilate a bounded number of migrants. The Trump administration can foster the inter-European trust needed to execute such cooperation.
Since Secretary of Defense Bob Gates famously rebuked NATO nations for their paltry military budgets in 2011, European cuts to defense have continued apace. Of the alliances 28 members, only the U.S., UK, Greece, Poland, and Estonia spend the required 2 percent of GDP on defense. Now, with Britain leaving the EU, some on the continent are accelerating their plans for an integrated European foreign and defense strategy.
The Trump administration should make clear to NATO leaders that it expects them to meet their defense spending commitments, and that it supports European defense integration only so long as it does not come at the cost of NATO. At the same time, the president-elect should reiterate early and unequivocally his commitment to the principle of collective defense outlined in Article V of the NATO charter.
As a deterrent signal, the Trump administration should also continue with plans to rotate troops through Poland and the Baltic States while partnering with these countries to improve their defenses, from cyber capabilities to information operations. Until NATO members meet their 2 percent threshold, the U.S. should ask for greater financial burden sharing to offset the costs of such deployments and initiatives.
U.S. troop rotations through Eastern Europe will not be sufficient to solve the most intractable problem of all, however: the disintegration of the Middle East and North Africa. Once justifiably proud of their humanitarianism, European leaders are now looking to stem the tide of refugees that has unsettled the continent for the past year. It is crucial that the Trump administration leads its European partners in solving the Syria crisis, for starters. Only once Syrians are willing to stay home and participate in the reconstruction of their country will the pressure on Europe’s borders begin to recede.
In February 1933, as mayor of Cologne, Konrad Adenauer refused to adorn the Deutzer bridge with swastikas on the occasion of the new chancellor’s visit—a defiance for which he was sacked. Already then, Adenauer was a committed democrat, but absent international support for Germany in the aftermath of World War I, he was swept aside by reactionary forces. His reemergence over a decade later as the father of modern Germany was made possible by the bravery of U.S. troops and the leadership of Presidents Truman and Eisenhower.
Today, Europeans set the international standard for quality of life. In few respects does Europe resemble the devastated continent of the immediate post-war era. Even so, beneath the veneer of peace and modernity lurks a fundamental weakness and brittle politics. President-elect Trump should take this opportunity to cloak himself in the mantle of past American leaders and shore up our pro-American partners. The future of NATO and Europe depends on it.